The profession that is the Coast Guard is an inherently dangerous one. Through this understanding, the Service continuously makes every effort to ensure the safety of its members. Every loss of a shipmate is felt and resonated throughout the Service. It’s during these tragic moments that the service reflects on the things that could have gone differently, implementing lessons that are learned so that future misfortunes of the same nature can be avoided.
As we approach the national day of recognition for America’s veterans, the Coast Guard honors those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.
Thirty-three years ago today, 11 shipmates made that sacrifice aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga after a collision between the cutter and the freighter Santa Cruz II at the entrance to the Potomac River. The following is a firsthand account of that tragic night from one of the survivors off the Cuyahoga, retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Gordon Thomas IV:
Oct. 20, 1978, was a beautiful autumn day on the Chesapeake Bay. Clear, cool and perfect for getting underway for my first time on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. I was six weeks into Officer Candidate School at Training Center Yorktown, Virginia. The cutter we were sailing on was the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga and was at the time the oldest active commissioned ship in the Navy or Coast Guard. At 125-feet long, the old “buck and a quarter” had quite a storied past from interdicting rum runners during Prohibition, to presidential yacht escort duty, to hunting submarines in the Caribbean during World War II. The purpose of sailing on the Cuyahoga was to teach us the practical side of manning watches and running a ship.
As we got underway at 3 p.m., I didn’t have much to do but wander around and get familiar with the ship. I was summoned to the bridge to [standby for] the bearing taker on the bridge-wing so he could eat dinner. I was shooting bearings to objects on the shore to fix the position of the ship to safely navigate up the Bay. Between fixes I was told to roll up the forward bridge windows as it was getting chilly. Little did I know, this order would save my life in a few hours.
Later, it was my turn to go on watch and my first position was radar operator. The radar scope was on the bridge of the ship, which was made up of three compartments. The pilothouse forward where the entrance was. This is where the captain ran the ship. The next compartment behind it, separated by a black-out curtain, a heavy piece of black vinyl to minimize light passage, was the radar and chart room. This is where I reported for duty.
I spent an hour at this position, and at 8:45 p.m. it came time to rotate to my next watch position as the navigation recorder. This position was still on the bridge but in the compartment behind where I currently was.
At 9:06 p.m. the ship began to shake and shutter violently. I had no idea what was going on. The shaking stopped and suddenly the deck rose up under my feet. There was a huge crashing sound of metal on metal like a hundred car wrecks all at once. I started to slide to the other side of the compartment 20-feet away but grabbed the exposed piping on the wall. Then the lights went out and it was pitch dark.
I had no idea what was going on but knew it wasn’t good. That’s when I smelled water. Soon I could feel it, first on my feet, then on my knees and it was rising fast. I wanted to get out of there. I knew I was three compartments away from the only door. Water was rushing in from the only exit in my current space and I presumed through the other two that I had to traverse as well, in the dark, with the ship on its side. I dove down to where I thought the door was using the current as a guide, but got tangled up in the blackout curtain. I came to the surface, got a gulp of air, and tried again with the same result.
Then it dawned on me to grab the curtain, pull myself hand over hand to the door and pull myself through to the next compartment. Voila! I was now in the chartroom. I had no way of detecting the current at the surface, so I dove down underneath the chart table in search of the next blackout curtain. God and luck were with me, and I found the curtain and pulled myself to the door and into the pilothouse. I relaxed and rose to the surface.
I searched for the door and found it closed. I didn’t have the leverage to open it as it was over my head and I had nothing to stand on. I tried to swim to the other door across the compartment, but the water was pouring from it and I couldn’t buck the current. Then I recalled rolling up the windows and figured they could roll down too! I dove down, felt around and found a window crank. I turned it as many times as my lungs would allow. I went to the surface, gulped some air, and went back to the crank. I dove down and pulled myself through the window and out of the Cuyahoga.
Eleven of my 29 shipmates were not so fortunate and lost their lives. Most of them were in berthing areas or in the engine room which took the direct impact. Fifteen months later the Coast Guard lost another cutter and 23 of her 50 crew members on the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn in a collision just outside Tampa Bay. After that accident, sweeping changes were made across the fleet to minimize the potential for future accidents. They must have been effective as there hasn’t been another USCG cutter collision with loss of life since.
Memorials for the loss of the Coast Guard crewmembers are held every year in Yorktown, Tampa Bay and New London, the site of the Coast Guard Academy and the current home of OCS.
As for me, the accident didn’t deter me from my sea going career and I served aboard eight Coast Guard cutters and five Navy ships in my 23-year career. I had many adventures at sea, but that’s another story.